The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 217pp, 1952
A year after a prolog in which an unnamed person warns that Florina will be destroyed in a nova and another drugs him and uses a psychic probe on him to “remove his anxiety,” we join amnesiac Rik on his lunch break at the mill where he’s suddenly remembered that he “analyzed Nothing” and that the world is somehow in danger. Rik was found in a kyrt field as a drooling, mindless wreck and the Townman, Myrlyn Terens, made the unmarried Lona Rik’s caretaker. He’s since improved to the point of being able to work in the mill. This bit of recovered memory makes Lona fear that a change may come to their relationship, so she goes to the Townman for advice. He is a Florinian and a civil servant who helps Sark rule Florina. While a quintet of Great Squires rule both worlds, and lesser Squires live in the Upper City on Florina, it is the bright Florinians who are taken to Sark, trained, and forbidden to have children, as a way to govern for now and to reduce the abilities of Florinians to do anything but grow kyrt for ever. Kyrt is a crop which grows only on Florina and is used in the production of fabulous fabrics and other products and has made Sark second only to Trantor in wealth, when Trantor rules half the galaxy and Sark just the two worlds. Despite it being against the rules, Terens decides to take Rik to the library of the Upper City to see if accessing books there will jog Rik’s memory further. However, someone has set a trigger to report when books on spatio-analysis are requested. From this minor infraction, things spiral out of control when Lona, who has followed them, sees them threatened by one of the foreign mercenaries known as Patrollers and used by Sark as the fist to the civil servants’ glove, wrests the Patroller’s own neuronic whip from him, and uses it on him. The trio flee to the Lower City and from the angry hornet’s nest of Patrollers they’ve stirred up and are rescued by a baker whose shop has a false oven they can hide in. The baker turns out to be more than he seems and has a special interest in Rik, with no interest in the other two. Terens takes off on his own, while Lona stays with Rik.
Meanwhile, Dr. Selim Junz of the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau visits with Ludigan Abel, the Trantorian ambassador. Junz has spent much of the last year looking for a missing spatio-analyst (those who study Nothing, or the currents within the near-vacuum of space). Through their conversations and reflections on the things which have formed their characters, we learn about, among other things, the tricky relationship Trantor and Sark have. At this point, Trantor rules half the galaxy and is far too powerful for Sark to fight, but Trantor is not yet strong enough to risk consolidating the other half of the galaxy against them, so must tread lightly when it comes to annexing other worlds, especially worlds as important as Sark, with its galaxy-spanning kyrt trade. So relations are handled officially by Abel and, unofficially, by a large spy network. This casts earlier events in a different and clearer light, as the baker is a spy for Trantor who is to bring Rik in. (We also learn that it was Junz who set the trigger on the books of spatio-analysis.) However, this fails to go according to plan, especially for Terens, who becomes a sort of serial killer.
The third component of the tale is introduced through the five-foot, ninety-pound Lady Samia of Fife. She is on Florina, working on her book on kyrt when her father, one of the Great Squires, orders her home due to the disturbances against the Patrollers. Rik and Lona have the strange luck to stow away on her ship and are quickly detected, and her romantic nature ignites with her fascination with the “mystery” the stowaways represent. Indeed, her father has a mystery of his own, which he describes to the other Great Squires, involving Trantorian machinations and his belief that one of the Squires is a traitor, which one of the accused dismisses as a “detective thriller.” The second half of the book involves the working out of these elements. Who did what was done to Rik? What specifically threatens Florina? Is there a traitor among the Squires and, if so, who? Can Trantor and Sark reach an accomodation or will their strains reach a breaking point?
Unlike the Robot and Foundation stories, Asimov never returned to the Empire milieu, so this third novel was the last of the group. The initial version of Pebble in the Sky was written for Startling Stories but never appeared in magazine form until after it was revised and published as a book. The Stars, Like Dust was serialized in Galaxy under the name “Tyrann” and with a subplot of Gold’s worked in. This one was serialized in John W. Cambpell’s Astounding without interference. All three include brief afterwords from Asimov in their early 1980s paperback editions explaining that a key science fictional premise within the novel is no longer considered scientifically viable and asking the reader to forgive that. While Rik is known in this one to be a foreigner, with one of his earlier recovered memories about his specific home world, all three novels are tied to Earth, despite their interstellar scope. While this is clearly the second book in internal chronology, pinning down a date to even the nearest millennium seems difficult. Trantor is described as having risen from a Republic of five worlds, to a Confederation, to a Trantorian Empire of half the galaxy, all within five hundred years so it seems reasonable that this novel is nearer to Pebble in the Sky than The Stars, Like Dust. On the other hand, while Rik’s Earth is the same radioactive blue of the Earth of the other books, there are no particular signs of animosity towards Earthers  but the preponderance of evidence points to a fairly late date. The fact of Earth being the homeworld of humanity has been forgotten and is now a disputed theory and the notion of convergent evolution has some strength.
And that brings us to a core theme of the book which revisits one of Pebble from a different angle. Sark’s domination of Florina is clearly driven by economics but, in a galaxy in which everyone, with few exceptions, is now of a more or less intermixed brown complexion, Florinians are white. This adds a racial component to Sark’s “sick social system.” The rebellious spirit has been almost utterly extinguished through a system of divide-and-conquer, surveillance, psychic probes (which are naively underutilized in the future of the essentially good-hearted Asimov), and of economic and classist disparity between the browns/whites represented at various scales by Sark/Florina and Upper/Lower City but which can have a strong basis in skin color and stereotyping. For example, when the noble brown girl, Samia, is caught (unwillingly) in a compromising position with a low-class white man it is used for powerful political and economic purposes when its only leverage comes from the twisted psychology of the Sarkites. Asimov wisely doesn’t limit this to a pure one-to-one metaphor, as aspects of it are reminiscent of Britain’s rule of India and many other aspects throughout human history, but American history is clearly the main inspiration, with one Sarkite even talking about “King Kyrt” (which has cellulose as one of its degenerate forms but which is even referred to once as cotton). While Pebble put its racial theme in the foreground, Currents handles it more cleverly by having it be structural and backgrounded for the most part but I suspect the social focus causes at least one aesthetic blemish in the moral calculus because multiple wrongs from and against this system in the person of one character are allowed to make a right by the conclusion of the book, a failing which anticipates much contemporary fiction. On the other hand, one especially unusual thing I liked in this was Selim Junz being from Libair, which is as atypical as Florina, in that Libairians are much darker than most and have dim recollections of a prehistory of racial strife. This causes Junz to feel a brotherhood with his fellow whites as both are minorities in a galaxy that is primarily intermediate. While this is probably largely a game of musical pigments in which Asimov, as a person of a Jewish minority, is expressing solidarity with African-Americans , it is also the actual state of things here on Earth. Blacks and whites are both (possibly temporary) minorities within all of humanity.
Heavy thematic stuff aside, as a simple reading experience, this novel of interstellar intrigue introduces us to a sympathetic but necessarily somewhat undefined character in the mostly erased Rik and his initially interesting relationship with Lona but the main drama begins with Terens joining the story and the three getting embroiled in increasingly out-of-control events. When Terens detaches from the pair, his mortally panicked flights from the coercive powers of his society are exciting and powerful. The amplification of the mystery elements with first Samia and then the Squire of Fife, himself, adds another layer and type of interest. Asimov’s skill in moving from scene to scene, with chapters moving forward and backward in time compared to their predecessors, sometimes redefining what we’ve just witnessed, is also put to good use. This is much improved over the handling in Stars, though there are a couple of overly long gaps between scenes and at least one use of a convenient memory loss and gain. More seriously, there are two chapters in a row (12 and 13) which involve long speeches (the first being the least successful part, dramatically, of the Squire’s involvement and the second being excess from a minor character) which slow the action. Most importantly, the ending isn’t completely satisfying. As I mentioned, the books don’t seem balanced regarding one character, the conclusion for two others doesn’t ring true, and much is resolved too easily. This and Pebble are very comparable and this surpasses it in some ways but, overall, I think I prefer the latter. Either way, I’ve always felt the Empire novels, though they are admittedly lesser works compared to the main Robot and Foundation books, were unfairly underestimated and this re-read of the trio makes me think that even more firmly.
 There are some other inconsistencies such as human males still being physically capable of growing facial hair when they aren’t in Pebble, but this may be an oversight. (And, of course, there are inconsistencies going the other direction which are due to the hazards of writing prequels, in that stowaway Arkady should have been detected as easily as Rik and Lona were and there seems to be no kyrt in the Galactic Empire.)
 As every sympathetic reader of Heinlein knows, just because a writer has characters advocate certain things doesn’t mean the writer does but, in Asimov’s non-fiction, he comes across as being liberal on race, especially for someone who made his mark in the 1940s and ’50s. In addition, Asimov was economically liberal and this comes across when he has a character advocate a respect for human rights over “mere property rights” and this, again, shows that Campbell’s Astounding, and science fiction in general, was not as monolithic as some like to believe or would have others believe.